Marxism and the Irrationalists

John Lewis


The Nature of the Supernatural

Does Science exclude the Supernatural?

THE upshot of all those theories that confuse modern ideas of matter with the reduction of the material to something mental, as of all forms of vitalism, is to demonstrate one thing at least, that science does not exclude the possibility of the supernatural. At any point, that is to say, the natural order may be interrupted by phenomena only explicable in terms of a transcendental reality. The significance of such an attitude of mind is immense. To look everywhere for the supernatural suspends those processes of intellectual liberation by which “men are brought to sanity” [1] and begin to understand the science of society. If whenever we meet with something we cannot yet explain scientifically we immediately regard it as beyond a natural explanation there is little incentive for further investigation. But if science comes to a full stop, so does human progress. A hundred years ago nature was full of unexplained phenomena that are now understood. The faith of science was that they were problems for rational solution, and that faith has been vindicated. Had such phenomena been regarded as examples of Divine intervention not one of these discoveries would have been made. The object of science is to give a natural, rational account of things, not to invoke inscrutable powers to explain them away. It is not fair to insist on a natural explanation for easy things and for all past discoveries which are now generally accepted and to fall back on supernaturalism for the difficult ones. If we bring in supernatural agencies at one point we may as well bring them in at all points and save ourselves the trouble of constructing a trivial man-made rational order.

“Faith in the Supernatural”, says Santayana, “is a

1 Laski, Faith, Reason and Civilisation.


desperate wager made by man at the lowest ebb of his fortunes; it is as far as possible from being the source of that normal vitality which subsequently, if his fortunes mend, he may gradually recover.” [1]

He is right. If man’s earlier belief in the supernatural derived from his ignorance and helplessness in the face of a nature hardly understood at all and almost completely man’s master, belief in the supernatural today arises from the failure of nerve in Western civilisation in the period of capitalist decline. The same force which drove the ancient world into the shelters of pagan and Christian supernaturalism drives us into a similar flight from responsibility, both on the plane of action and on the plane of belief.

Man will not be delivered from superstition by the most overwhelming case for reason if a deep reluctance based on a conscious or unconscious fear of what enquiry may reveal if science is applied to the objective social situation holds him back. When reason and scientific enquiry conflict with the status quo the tendency is to scrap them both.

Supernaturalism and Social Chaos

In this whole degeneration into supernaturalism and irrationalism we have quite clearly the story of an outworn élite which could always find the word to justify its fatigue and excuse its panic fear.

To those who are shut up in the capitalist world and are unable or unwilling to conceive of its ending in order to give place to socialism, it can only seem that the world is going mad. Alexander Miller, a Christian who is deeply troubled by the course of events, describes the predicament thus:

“Events are out of hand, our generation is in the grip of gigantic forces whose nature no man can understand and which are beyond the power of men or of democratic assemblies to control. The future of society is being shaped by influences impersonal or daemonic so that intelligent intervention is impossible or meaningless. This sense of overmastering fate

1 Santayana, The Realm of Spirit.


is shattering in its effect on personal responsibility. It takes the stuffing out of men; it creates a numbness of mind and soul, a sense of helpless and sheer frustration.” [1]

The B.B.C. and the Reconciliation of Faith and Science

In the Autumn Of 1952 a number of working scientists gave a series of broadcasts on Science and Faith, [2] introduced and finally summed up by Professor John Baillie. None of these men would for a moment tolerate the suggestion of a supernatural intervention breaking in on a chemical or electrical or biological experiment, but they all advocated a fundamental dualism in life, dividing it into the sphere of scientific truth and the sphere of spiritual reality. There is the impersonal, purely mechanical world of science, which is concerned with the “how of things”, with devising means, and there is the personal, spiritual world of religion, which is concerned with the “why” of life, the meaning and purpose of existence, with the choice therefore of ends and with values.

These two worlds are complementary, though how they are to be related, says Baillie, remains a difficult problem.

Science cannot do without faith because of itself it has no values, no aims and no significance. “Science does not possess in itself the necessary nourishment of its own vitality . . . When nature is believed to have no pre-ordained meaning or purpose in itself, speculative interest in it fails, and the remaining concern is only to subdue its inherent purposelessness to our own chosen ends.” But if such ends are “merely chosen and not prescribed, if they represent only human preference dictated by interest instead of solemn obligations emanating from a source beyond ourselves, then science becomes a dangerous tool to put into men’s hands”. Indeed if man’s destiny is to control nature, it is "to be controlled by obedience to divinely ordained laws without consideration of convenience, or comfort, or material gain or even survival” 3 (our italics).

1 Alexander Miller, The Christian Significance of Karl Marx.

2 Since published as Science and Faith edited by Prof. John Baillie.

3 Prof. John Baillie in Science and Faith.


Science by itself can only give us bigger bombs and deeper dug-outs, more power and more comfort. It cannot supply moral resources or good will, faith or hope or charity. “The only certainties for which you and I would lay down our lives are certainties that science can do nothing either to suggest or establish.” [1] Science, says John Baillie, is not only incapable of recognising values, it is essentially a dehumanising force, destroying faith in ideals and freedom. The moment you begin to think in terms of values, ends, purposes and human freedom you have left the world of science behind, for science is mechanical, determinist and concerned only with the measurable aspects of phenomena—and what are those but the mere shadows of realities?

Quite other faculties than those we use in scientific investigation put us in contact with the wider world outside that of matter and the measurable, give us intuitive knowledge of a Divine person, acquaint us with religious truths and enable us to recognise the good. Dr. Kenneth Walker believes that these special faculties can be trained to apprehend knowledge directly and not through the senses and the intellect. They give us the knowledge that behind outward appearances there is a supreme spiritual reality. [2]

Literature and Supernaturalism

A somewhat similar approach has been made by a number of literary figures, among whom we may mention T. S. Eliot, Basil Willey, C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. They assert that in the seventeenth century, with the rise of physical science, there occurred a split between intellect and feeling. From science arose a liberal humanism that undermined poetry and religion, so that man chose a humanistic instead of a theological world view. From this defeat of religion and feeling all our present ills derive—the crisis in morals, the decline of faith, social collapse, the disintegration of culture.

1 Ibid.

2 Kenneth Walker, Meaning and Purpose.


This is why our moral progress has not kept pace with scientific and material advance.

A similar disparagement of science is also found among those who believe in original sin as the cause of all human ills, the consequence of this belief being the surrender of the sociological and psychological approach to abnormalities in human conduct, since the real cause of wrong doing is revealed in theology and not to science.

The way to truth, then, is to turn our backs on reason and science and seek another pathway to reality. This is the two truths theory as expounded and criticised by Kathleen Nott. [1] Having first of all strictly limited science to the quantitative and to the physical, and the scientific reason to the process of analysing facts or taking them to pieces, it is perfectly easy to show that science is inadequate as a method of apprehending moral, aesthetic and human values. The argument proceeds to claim that since by such an emasculated kind of reasoning we cannot know the truth about man, therefore we can know the truth about God by some other means, in this case by the acceptance of authoritarian dogma. “When science is merely measurement, ignorance can be not only bliss, but knowledge.” [2] We are thus enabled to return to dogmatic positions which are, of course, unsupported by experimental evidence and reason.

Is Science purely Quantitative?

It is not difficult to see the fallacies in this reasoning.

1. Reason is not necessarily physical or mathematical or analytical. It is the impartial examination of experimental data, the drawing of inferences therefrom and checking these by further experience.

2. So far from being purely analytical, reason is imaginative and creative, but it continues to test the hypotheses resulting from creative thinking in order to check their validity.

3. Science covers a much wider field than the quantitative

1 Kathleen Nott, The Emperor’s Clothes.

2 Ibid.


and is by no means confined to mathematical prediction; if it were, this would automatically exclude the social and non-quantitative biological sciences from scientific status. In point of fact whenever we are able to observe facts and to form hypotheses which we can subsequently test we are thinking scientifically, whatever the subject matter. Why then, is science so frequently stated to be a purely quantitative affair? The limitation of science to the quantitative is not an accident nor is it wholly due to ignorance. It has the effect of keeping all vital and human and social phenomena out of the field of scientific thinking and therefore handing them over to intuition on the one hand or dogma on the other. It is a shocking argument, because “even if science did not tell us anything about certain fields, not to know something does not mean the same as to know something quite different”. [1] It is clear that Eliot, Willey and the rest have created a fictitious, abstract sort of science and scientist, the bogy which reduces the universe to dead soulless mechanism and is of course indispensable to them when they proceed to show us their alternative road to truth.

4. So far from scientific method being limited, it is the only method by which we get knowledge. We know in one way, not two, and the knowledge we obtain does not fall into two irreconcilable sectors but is always being unified, being built up into one system of truth. It is thinking of this sort that gives us not only modern techniques and modern medicine, but sane political thinking, anthropology, psychology and every other science of man. And every step takes us away from authoritarianism, religious dogma and belief in original sin. “It is not science that is to blame for our troubles but the failure to think scientifically over a wider field and in a more thorough fashion.” [2]

5. The argument for two truths is indeed thoroughly suspect. To keep the human and social fields out of the sphere of scientific enquiry is not merely obscurantist, it serves

1 Kathleen Nott, loc. cit.

2 Ibid.


definite social interests. It clearly aims at a return to ecclesiastical authority which is in alliance with corrupt and power-seeking reactionary forces. So far from science being without standards and humanism being without values and aims, it is the churchmen who are continually coming forward in support of atomic bombing and who had nothing to say at the horror of Hiroshima. It has been pointed out that historically war has been nearer to “total” the more religious it has been. Nor are we too happy about the order and values which, according to Eliot, religion is to help us establish; he would appear to mean the order of an imposed Catholic dogma and the hierarchical, caste system of society it supports, while his values are those of an economically privileged class.

We see that the whole position both of the broadcasters and the literary propagandists derives its strength from a misrepresentation of the nature of science and of modern materialism. It may have been true that some nineteenth-century materialists advanced an over-simplified doctrine which explained away all human values; but it is not easy to find examples, and there are no such materialists today.

“Nothing But” Philosophies

Those who seek in this way to restore supernaturalism identify scientific materialism with a crude philosophy which “reduces” all the richness of existence to “nothing but” atoms in motion, everything else being mere illusion or a secondary product of no ultimate reality; they then employ this identification to charge materialists with the reduction of all distinctively human values, moral, aesthetic and so forth, to blind mechanical conjunctions of material entities—a reduction which is in effect the complete destruction of these values.

In point of fact modern, dialectical materialism stands in fundamental opposition not only to all forms of supernaturalism, but also to all types of reductionist thinking of the “nothing but” type. The richness and variety of natural phenomena and human experience cannot be explained away


and “reduced” to something else. The world is not really “nothing but”, something other than it appears to be; it is what it is, in all its manifold variety, with all its distinctive kinds of activity. Human life in particular displays characteristic ways of action which have no counterpart in the behaviour of other living things. Man’s intelligence, his problems of technical mastery of the world and social organisation for production, his moral responsibility, his ideal enterprises of art, science and philosophy, are what they are, and are not reducible to anything else.

We thus advance against supernaturalism a materialism at once anti-dualist and anti-reductionist, extending the scope of the natural to include “the whole of man’s physical and terrestrial environment, earth and sky, land and sea, plants and animals, everything from the structure of the atom to the composition of the galaxy, and from the non-filterable virus to the saints and sages of mankind”. [1]

Science Truly Human

Science itself is thus truly human. “Giving a real understanding of life and therefore also of man, showing man the right way to think in order to understand nature and life, including himself, science can thus provide the basis for a single comprehensive system of thought covering the organic as well as the inorganic world, and therefore relevant to man himself”. [2] Man cannot be dealt with scientifically except on his own level as a member of society, and therefore science itself (not some instrument of knowledge proceeding on nonscientific lines) must be extended to include economics, sociology and psychology.

When that is not done man is treated either mechanically or merely biologically on the one hand, or mystically and in isolation from nature on the other. The latter course must lead straight to superstition and pessimism, as it manifestly has done in the recent broadcasts. Even Canon Raven characterises

1 Raven, Science and Religion.

2 loc. cit.


this dualism as opening the door to superstition. When religion is put into a category by itself to control and guide science from without, by applying supernatural standards, the resulting dualism leads to scepticism, defeatism and subjectivism. There can be no criterion as to objectivity or reliability, or any possibility of distinguishing between good and bad institutions, true insights and pure self-delusion.

The Perils of Subjectivism

Mystical experiences and bad philosophy are poor props for a transcendental faith. Modern psychology offers no support for contact with the supernatural in mystical experiences, which can be shown to be wholly subjective and can be brought about by a considerable range of drugs. [1]

In this welter of subjectivism there can and does arise a conflict of the most dangerous kind; for supernatural illumination is claimed for opposing convictions, and since rational and scientific criteria have been abandoned one intuition is as good as another. The result is the most fundamental kind of discord that can possibly exist, the only escape being a desperate appeal to some supernatural authority to guarantee one set of revealed truths as against its rivals. It becomes a case of Pope versus the Bible (as interpreted by someone of course), or of prophet versus priest, or mystic versus mystic.

Such a faith, therefore, unless it reverts to authoritarianism, becomes a faith in the divine authority of one’s own spiritual insight. But as G. K. Chesterton once said: “Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within . . . That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the inner light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within”. [2]

1 See for instance the mystical states self‑induced by William James by means of nitrous oxide, as described in The Will to Believe.

2 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.


Supernaturalism blocks progress

Belief in the supernatural is in any scientist a betrayal of the scientific attitude. As long ago as 460 B.C. Hippocrates pointed the way to the emancipation of science from superstition. Primitive people were irresistibly tempted to consider disease as a supernatural infliction. Insanity or epidemics seem direct visitations from heaven. The Jews of Christ’s era regarded epileptics as “possessed with a devil” and the fifth-century Greeks called that mysterious complaint “the sacred illness”. Hippocrates firnily rejected such ideas, and laid down the momentous principle that all disease is natural in origin, and to be cured, not by magic or incantation, but by natural means. “This disease”, he said of epilepsy, “seems to me no more divine than the rest; but it is as natural as all other diseases and has a cause for all its symptoms.” He goes on to say that to know the cause is to know the cure and finally repudiates the distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

The consequences likely to flow from a reversion to supernaturalism would be disastrous. Firstly, it puts a heavy discount upon resources potentially available for the betterment of human life. Let us remember that one of the most serious of its doctrines is a low view of human capacities, so low in fact that reliance upon them can only make things worse. Science cannot help; industry and commerce cannot help; political reform cannot help; human morals and will power cannot help. The effect of this pessimism can only be that human effort is weakened and frustrated in just the degree in which supernaturalism prevails.

If science represents only the material and inferior aspect of things while another sort of knowledge reveals a higher realm of truth, is it possible in this atmosphere for science to advance to its full stature and accomplish all that it is capable of? Denial of full scope and responsibility to science on the grounds that its inferior field of work incapacitates it from exercising any positive influence in human affairs can only restrict and deflect its influence.


This opinion of science tends to lower the intellectual standards of supernaturalists in the field of science, to dull their sense of the importance of evidence, to blunt their sensitivity to the need of accuracy of statement and to encourage a resort to feelings and intuitions instead of rational thinking.

Supernaturalism and Dogmatism

What must be the effect of believing that there stands above the enquiring, patient, ever learning and tentative methods of science an organ or faculty which reveals ultimate and immutable truths and that apart from the truths thus obtained there is no sure foundation for morals or for a moral order of society?

Firstly, it leads to finalism and dogmatism, even to fanaticism.

Secondly, as we have already pointed out, the clash of intuitively perceived or dogmatically advanced absolutes demands an external authority to make known these truths and set the seal on those which are to be believed in distinction from those that are to be rejected.

Thirdly, once an absolute truth or morality is advanced it is lifted above the possibility of criticism because the absolute is the isolated and the isolated is that which cannot be judged on the grounds of connections that can be investigated. Every class interest in all history has defended itself from examination by putting forth claims to absoluteness, taking refuge in the fortress of principles too absolute to be subjects of doubt and inquiry. The real reason that absolutism advances its claims against the verifiable and experimental results of the “lower” methods of science is simply that the search for connections of events, which they deprecate, is the sure way of destroying the privileged position of exemption from inquiry which every form of absolutism secures wherever it obtains.

SOURCE: Lewis, John. Marxism and the Irrationalists. London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., 1955. Chapter 7: The Nature of the Supernatural, pp. 61-71.

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